As I watched the new Avengers movie on Monday night, I couldnā€™t stop thinking about Superman.

Specifically, I got stuck on the idea that Age of Ultron felt like a much more heroic superhero movie than Supermanā€™s last cinematic outing, Man Of Steel.


Spoilers follow for Man of Steel and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Man of Steel went dark in its interpretation of Kal-Elā€™s mythos. Some would say too dark, that the character was barely recognizable as a Superman. The trailer for Batman v. Supermanā€”complete with a Dark Knight who seems intent on making Superman bleedā€”indicates that the sequel will be staying in that desaturated mood. While Age of Ultron shoulders its own heavy themes, itā€™s different from Man of Steel in one crucial way: it goes out of its way to show the Avengers saving the lives of individual people. A lot.


One of the big questions that fans asked after watching Man of Steel was just how many people died as a result of Supermanā€™s megaton battles with other Kryptonians. Combine all that destruction with the paucity of scenes where he actually protects people and an ending where he kills archenemy General Zod and itā€™s hard to see where director Zack Snyder established the characterā€™s stance on the sanctity of life.

By comparison, the biggest battle scenes in Age of Ultronā€”directed by Joss Whedonā€”are rife with moments where Earthā€™s Mightiest Heroes get people out of harmā€™s way or deal with the repercussions of their actions have on innocents. A building about to come down? Iron Man scans it for life signs. Hulk goes apeshit in a heavily populated area? Banner wallows in guilt and shame. The one scene where it looks like a hero explicitly ends a bad guyā€™s life? Director Joss Whedon cuts away from the deed, leaving it ambiguous as to what actually happens. Killing isnā€™t cool in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Thatā€™s a very un-Marvel place to wind up.


Now, Iā€™m not much one for ascribing specific tonalities to Marvel or DC. In 2015, writers, editors and creative talent all go back and forth from one publisher to another and they carry their proclivities with them. But thereā€™s a long history of Marvel and DC branding themselves in specific ways that canā€™t be ignored. Traditionally, Marvel Comics has been the ā€œedgierā€ shop when it comes to the big two superhero purveyors.

Despite their complicated relationship with their history, DC sells itself as a rich modern-day mythology with a Christ-figure sun deity, a vampire-demon lord of darkness and a Greco-Roman warrior goddess at its center. The publisherā€™s major cities donā€™t actually exist and are idealized representations of places like New York, Cincinnati, Detroit or Seattle. In short, for some fans (and creators), DC is still synonymous with a toothless, wholesome naivete that they decry as boring. These characters are icons, hovering off the ground by dint of alien, celestial or 1% heritage. Readers are supposed to aspire to be like them in one way or another.

On the opposite pole lies Marvel. When the company presented the Fantastic Four in 1961, it put them in New York City and gave them squabbles like the family who might live next door to you. Spider-Man had the same kind of grounding, what with his constant money troubles and the missed opportunity to stop the man who killed Uncle Ben. The X-Men concept revolves around the idea of systemic prejudice. Iron Man presented a weapons manufacturer as a hero to envy. Thisā€”as Stan Lee, compatriots and successors would sayā€”was the world outside your window. These characters were relatable and even fallible. You could be these characters, with the right chromosomes or radioactive accidents.


The characters who are standard-bearers for Marvel and DC also speak to these longstanding sensibilities. One of Marvelā€™s most popular characters, the now-dead Wolverine, is a stone-cold killer. His popularity came from the fact that he did what so many other superheroes didnā€™t. Heā€™s killed on command and for vengeance. He generally doesnā€™t feel bad about it. Itā€™s the opposite of naive.

Compare this to Batman, the DC character who eclipses even Superman in popularity. Heā€™s dark as hell but doesnā€™t kill. If Bat-allies like Red Hood or Huntress cross the line and take lives, he makes a point to shut them down hard. After watching his parents die in front of him, his whole raison dā€™etre is to prevent death. Thatā€™s been a defining feature of DC Comicsā€™ most important core characters.


Mind you, Avengers: Age of Ultron still bears many of the hallmarks of the Marvel comics formula. They bicker and threaten each other. Captain America is still presented as a man out of his own time, a tether to a more polite kind of heroism. Tony Starkā€™s sense of outsized ego and responsibility struggles with his ambition and guilt and the seeds for the movieā€™s robotic villain begin there.

Ultron here is more fun than heā€™s ever been in the comics. This is a super-smart AI who talks shit with chilling amusement. He knows heā€™s better than humanity, and thanks to James Spaderā€™s voice acting, you believe him. His quest to destroy the human race opens up the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, letting Whedon sprinkle the movie with signifiers for the global contempt for American influence. The Avengersā€™ actions cause massive amounts of damage every time they fight bad guys and the world doesnā€™t quite view them as saviors anymore.


Is there so-called ā€˜destruction pornā€™ in Age of Ultron? Yes, tons of it. But the heroesā€™ desire to save lives is established and reinforced throughout the movie. All we got in terms of regret or awareness of repercussions in Man of Steel was Superman screaming ā€œNo!ā€ after killing Zod. Look, if Iā€™m expected to suspend belief enough to allow for a solar-powered flying man, then I also want a fantasy that also tell me he can save a couple of thousand people. Really, I want a Superman who saves everyone. But, if the last Superman movie is any indication, thatā€™s an idea that seems unmarketable to DC/Warner Bros. powers-that-be. Avengers: Age of Ultron shows that superhero movies donā€™t just have to be concerned with ultra-kewl special effects battles and merchandising opportunities. They can focus on the best aspects of the superhero construct, which is that those who are more powerful than mere mortals really care about the people they fly above. The last Superman movie didnā€™t give me that but the new Avengers does it in spades.